Life in a Row Boat | Thanksgiving Sermon 11/24/19

Our first married Thanksgiving, we decided to host both of our parents. At the time, we lived in Virginia in a tiny, three hundred square foot apartment. I was managing a residence hall at the school with the best football team ever: James Madison University. 

Thanksgiving morning we woke up and began to set the table, make the food, and generally prepare. Dana’s parents arrived soon and began to help. At some point, Dana and her mom went down to the dorm kitchen to fetch the turkey and get it ready to go. As they pulled it out of the fridge, they knew something was wrong. The fridge was set too cold and the fresh turkey had frozen solid. Out Dana and her mom ran, running to different grocery stores, until he finally found one open that had a fresh turkey big enough for all of us.  

They came home, a triumphant, and Thanksgiving was saved! That afternoon we ate with throw away table cloths on old folding tables sitting in old folding chairs. The scene reminded me much of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving as the kids sit around the same kinds of tables, in the same chairs, eating a makeshift meal, but grateful to be together. 

Indeed, we were grateful to be together that Thanksgiving, to celebrate our first married Thanksgiving and for the gift of family who drove up from Georgia to be with us. 

Thanksgiving is a wonderful, marvelous, holiday, that brings the warmth of family to bear on our lives. As the air chills, we gather together to remember the good things in our lives, to offer thanks to God; a reminder that all we have and cherish in this life is, in fact, a gift. 

That’s what our scripture this morning notes: the good gifts God has given.

Let’s hear about those gifts together as we read this Psalm responsively. It has a repeated refrain: his steadfast love endures forever. You’ll say that each time you see it on the screen. And let’s stand for it so that we can get into it. Don’t mumble; if you really believe his steadfast love endures forever, don’t be afraid to say it, even with gusto! Let the scripture recall for you how God has provided, given you good gifts. 

Psalm 136

In a cabin, somewhere deep in the woods, the poet wrote. Secluded for months at a time, he would write his thoughts, staring out into the endless forest. Nearby was a lake; sometimes cause for reflection there on the banks. 

It was a beautiful, idyllic, setting, to consider the plight of humans, to think the deep philosophical thoughts that escape most of us, and then to write them down for generations to come to read. 

Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, still escapes many of us. It’s one of those deep books that high school and college makes us read; one many of us suffer through in order to complete whatever the assignment is. 

But Walden has inspired some very quotable passages. One in particular commands our attention this morning. Thoreau at some point, while staring at the woods or sitting by the fire in his log cabin or sitting by the banks of the lake, wrote several lines about living into our dreams. Those lines were condensed into an inspirational quote that has inspired both individual lives and jewelry commercials ever since. The quote says, “Go boldly in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” 

Think back to when you were in school or, if you’re in school now, think ahead to what’s to come. During our education, the Thoreau quote is the mantra: find your dream, discover your passion, then get the education and experience to live it out. We imagine our preferred vision of the future. When I was in college, I initially dreamed of being a band director. I imagined creating marching band shows and leading those. I could see myself conducting in front of the orchestra or concert band to create beautiful, amazing, music. 

I could see my preferred vision of the future and was moving boldly in that direction. And of course, you see me now and know it didn’t work out that way. Life’s that way: we go boldly in one direction and something throws us off course. Or we choose a different course because something happens that we didn’t expect. After three semesters, I wanted to throw my trombone down and never play it again. I was tired of having to be so technical with my piano playing. I could have been a music theory major, but I was done with the performance aspects. And so I changed course. 

I made the choice that time and I’m sure you can relate to choices you’ve made that change the dreams, change the road ahead. And then sometimes life throws curve balls. There’s an unexpected opportunity to seize, a surprise addition to your family, an experience that changes your dream. And so, based on those joyous events, we chart new courses, setting our sights ahead on a new dream. 

Then, there are the difficulties, the challenges, the tragedies, that change the course we’ve charted; the kinds of things that threaten the life we have imagined by throwing us off the path that was going boldly in the direction of our dreams. Those seem to happen more often, changing our view of the future.

Or sometimes even destroying our view of the future. The path forward that we’ve been following, holding that preferred vision of the future in our minds, that dream, evaporates. There is no path any longer. We’re stuck, looking hard for a new path, feeling disoriented all the while.

Consider your life. All of us have these items in our paths. Perhaps some of us have realized a dream we’ve had since a child, but even if that describes you, the path from your childhood to realizing your dream wasn’t straight. There are twists and turns. There are unexpected joys and sorrows. There are amazing gifts and dreadful losses. All of it charting a path we never expected, and often leading us to a future that we never imagined. 

And that can be terribly disorienting.

We can go boldly in the direction of our dreams to live the life we’ve imagined. But if we are brave enough to be authentic this morning, we know following that advice often leads to those disorienting moments of life. 

A disorientation that the Israelites rarely, if ever, knew. 

When I was going to seminary, I would leave the house early enough to get to Emory before rush hour. That put me on campus, usually, at 6:45 in the morning. My first class was at 8, so I would go and workout. It didn’t take me long to discover the top floor of the Woodruff Physical Education Center, three floors up from ground level, with windows all around. 

Near some windows in a corner were rowing machines. I loved them. Less for the rowing. That was kind of grueling. But for the view. Through the widows, high up on the third floor, I looked east. Below was the outdoor running track I sometimes ran. Past that was a full view of the seminary building. Behind it was the giant cross from Emory’s chapel standing upright, looking over campus. Beyond that, I could see the rooftops of buildings on the quad and the steeple of Glenn Memorial UMC, the Methodist Church on campus. 

And most of the year, as I rowed, an orange glow would begin to envelop the rooftops, the steeple, the cross, bathing Emory’s campus in a beautiful shroud of light. I would just stare, enraptured by the glory of God on full display in the sun rise. I’d forget about my aching arms, forget about my pace, I was so enraptured. I would keep rowing. 

Until I hit someone. In fact, I hit people with frequency, no matter how much I tried not to. The rowing machines weren’t secured to the floor. Even though they were designed to be stationary, they still tended to drift backwards as I rowed. Eventually, as my legs and arms thrust me backward, I’d hit someone. There were apologies and I’d drag my rowing machine back toward the window. 

And row and row, again enraptured, until I either wore out or hit someone again. This hitting someone was a problem! And I never quite figured out how to fix it. Because I was too transfixed by the glory of God on fully display as sunlight enveloped Emory’s campus. 

My attention was focused on what I could see, even though I was ever so gradually drifting forward into what I could not see. 

That’s the thing about row boats. Picture yourself on one. As you row and move forward, your eyes are looking not ahead toward where you’re going, but behind you, looking toward where you’ve come from. 

In a row boat, to go forward, you have to sit looking backwards. 

And that’s why the Israelites rarely knew the disorientation we know: the disorientation that comes when the future we imagined dies. 

The Israelites were too busy looking backwards to do what we do: “go[ing] boldly in the direction of [our] dreams.” 

We think of time as linear: a straight line moving forward. We walk that line, all of us, moving forward, with our eyes focused on what’s ahead, even though we can’t see it. That’s how we think of time; it’s how we’re enculturated. 

And it’s not at all how the Israelites thought of time. They thought of time like rowing a row boat. Yes, you’re moving forward into the future, but as you move forward, you’re looking backwards. 

Consider the scripture this morning. They give thanks to the Lord because they know that God’s steadfast love endures forever. How do they know that? Not by projecting it into the future. Not by trying to gaze into the future. Not by looking forward. 

No, they look behind them, all while rowing their way forward into an unknown future. 

They know God’s steadfast love endures for ever because God created all things, in the past. When God created all things, he called them good, in the past. When they were enslaved in Egypt, God delivered them, in the past. When God brought them to the land of Canaan, God gave them the victory over kings like Og and Sihon, in the past. 

And in times when they were in “low estate,” God remembered them, in the past. In times when they did not have enough to eat or to sustain life, God provided for them, in the past. At times when they were surrounded by enemies, God “rescued [them] from their foes,” in the past. 

All of this they have in focus as they move boldly into an unknown future. As the Israelite row boat moves forward, the Israelites are looking backwards, transfixed on the shoreline that’s gradually moving away from them. Because on that shoreline, the have known the goodness of God, they have known the deliverance of God, they have known the salvation of their God. They move boldly into a future they cannot see. They can do so because they are focused on what God has done in the past.

They cannot see the future not just because it’s dark or unclear or obscured somehow. That’s true for all of us, no matter how our culture teaches us to view time. 

No, they can’t see the future because they are literally looking the other way, to the past, as the move boldly forward.

And when they look to the past, even while inevitably moving into the future, they see reason to say over and over again, “his steadfast love endures forever.”

To go boldly into the future, the Israelites spend their time remembering the past. To go forward, they look backwards. 

This time of year, it’s tempting to look into the future. Many of us are already thinking about Christmas. Perhaps we’ve already done some Christmas shopping. Christmas is so invasive at Thanksgiving that many stores open for Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving Day. Many of us Americans eat our fill at the table and then rush out the door to go buy stuff. We’re thinking about the future: what we’ll get for our loved ones, for those we’re obligated to buy gifts for, and what we’ll get for ourselves. 

Or, perhaps we’re thinking about the future because we’re thankful for what we expect the coming year to hold. I’ve spent many a Thanksgiving like that. Knowing that, by the time of the next Thanksgiving, I would graduate from college, or I would be a father, or something of that nature. 

Or, and this is much more common I think, life has been so bad, so difficult, or left us so melancholy, that we don’t want to look backwards because, if we look at the past, there are few reasons to give thanks. And so we look ahead to the next year, to the future, expecting that this year, things will be different; this year, things will be better. 

We rest our faith in the future. A faith that this Christmas, we’ll get everything everyone wants. A faith that the year ahead holds many promises and blessings. A faith that next year will be better, next year won’t bring so much drama, difficulty, downturns, and disaster. 

But scripture is clear, and our life’s experience should teach us the same thing that scripture does: faith rests in the past, not the future. 

The ancient Israelites had it right: as we move into an unknown, uncertain, unclear, future, we should be staring at the past, staring at the shoreline, seeing the good things God has done in our past. That’s where we rest faith; on the goodness of God we have known in the past; on the fact that our lives bear out what the Israelites saw most clearly on the shoreline of their past: “his steadfast love endures forever.” 

Consider how foolish it is, indeed, to put any faith in the future. We can imagine the future we want all day but rarely does it come true. And getting there is a fight no matter what. Because life is full of twists and turns. On our rowboat, the wind comes and blows us off course. A storm comes and threatens to capsize our boat. The waves pound the edges. We hit rocks and the boat gets stuck. All sorts of things happen. And as we’re blown off course, we can try to strain our necks around to look for a preferred shore, hoping to row our way there. 

Or we can look back at the shoreline we left and see that “his steadfast love endures forever,” taking comfort that, if we knew in the past that God’s love for us was forever, that God’s love will still be forever in our future. 

This can be hard. It’s a big change in our thinking. And we might have to stare hard at the shoreline behind us. Perhaps when we look at that shoreline, there are too many wrecks, too much debris strewn along the shore, memories of things in our past we’d rather forget. 

But look closer. Somewhere on the shoreline, there are “great wonders.” Somewhere on the shoreline, there’s the “sun to rule over the day.” Up over the trees on the shore, there’s “the moon and stars to rule the night.” Back in the woods on the shore, you see where God “led [you] through the wilderness.” Back on the shore, you see where God gave you “the land as a heritage.” There, even amid the debris, you see how God “remembered [you] in [your] low estate.” There, on the shore, is reason to “give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures forever.” 

Look closer at the shoreline of your life, of your past. There’s reason for thanksgiving on that shore. It might take some looking, but it’s there. 

As you sit around your Thanksgiving tables on Thursday, consider this image of the row boat. Look back at the shore, and then go around the table and answer this question: where in my past have I known that God’s “steadfast love endures forever?” Recall those powerful memories. Let them not only turn your hearts to thanksgiving, but let those memories also fuel your faith: a faith that says you can “go boldly in the direction of [an unknown] dream to live the life [only God has] imagined.”

That’s faith. Faith means moving into an unknown future knowing that, one day when that future has become your past, you’ll look back at the shoreline and see how God’s “steadfast love” was for you “forever.” 

The past fuels our faith. It gives us courage to face the future. 

So this Thanksgiving, look back at your past. Stare hard. Find the ways that God’s steadfast love has endured for you forever. Let that be cause to return thanks. 

With your eyes transfixed on the shore, row confidently into a future you cannot see.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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